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Concerts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sublime Embrace:
Concerts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Program of the first free concert held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

Ninety-five years ago the halls of The Metropolitan Museum of Art resounded with the sounds of music, as the first public concert was held within the Museum's galleries. Reviewing the performance, a journalist enthused:

The special effect of music in the Museum was strangely artistic. It somehow reminded the spectator-listener of a Grecian temple of worship. The austere dignity of the hall, the ancient tapestries on the walls, the gigantic bronze of a human figure facing the gallery of the musicians gave strange effect to the music itself coming from above, the players screened by the iron railings and not visible to the audience below them. . . . Usually heads are lowered to the sound of music, especially among the thoughtful, to whom a concert is a treat. Here the opposite was true. Every head was raised high, each face was shining. There was a feeling of spaciousness and volume to the music in an art gallery that was different from the crowded seats and close elbowing of a concert hall.[1]

Under the direction of David Mannes, who programmed the free concerts for the next thirty years, these performances became a mainstay of the Museum's offerings. Nearly a century later, musical performances remain an important component of the Museum's activities, as a look at the upcoming Met Museum Presents season reveals. How much do we know about the history of performance programs at the Met, and the individuals who made them possible?

David Mannes was born in 1866 on the Lower West Side, four years before the formal establishment of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (see Today in Met History: April 13). As a young man he visited the Met frequently in its new home at 1000 Fifth Avenue, where he would wander around its galleries, likening the medieval tapestry hall in his imagination to the Hall of the knights of the Holy Grail.[2] From those early days, Mannes—a budding musician and conductor—fantasized of being able to perform in the Museum, surrounded by great works of art. Many years later he wrote:

The atmosphere of the concert hall had always seemed to lack something. It made people constrained or, what was worse, self-conscious. Many of them came not to hear music so much as to be seen hearing music. And there was a formality, a rigidity about the whole thing that, to my mind ill-suited the spirit of the music played. I dreamed of a place where people could come and listen to fine music without this constraint: where they could arrive when they chose and leave when they chose, and where, the tickets costing nothing, there would be no economic or social barrier to their coming. [3]

Mannes's first performance at the Museum happened in November 1906, when a reception was held for Sir Caspar Purdon Clarke, the new director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mannes conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra, the first private concert of sorts, in a gallery over the Fifth Avenue entrance. Over the next decade he returned to conduct music at other private Museum receptions, and continued to encourage the Museum to offer concerts to the general public.


David Mannes, Library of Congress

The opportunity arose in 1916 when Edward Harkness, a prominent Museum trustee, offered to pay for six concerts to be open to the public free of charge, stipulating that Mannes be the conductor. The idea was put on hold when other trustees questioned the viability of the project, but Mannes remained optimistic. When the issue was revisited several months later, the trustees consented to two experimental concerts to be held in February 1918. Harkness agreed to cover the expenses—up to a certain amount each—for the concerts, which were intended primarily for the large number of soldiers and sailors present in the city at the time.

David Mannes' letter to Director Edward Robinson regarding public concerts. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

The first such concert was held February 9, 1918, and attracted 781 people. The following week, on February 16, almost two thousand people crowded into the Museum for a concert. Among the attendees was John D. Rockefeller Jr., a Museum trustee, who, together with his wife, was greatly impressed. Rockefeller Jr. became an enthusiastic supporter and proponent of the concerts, and was their largest single sponsor over the next three decades. In a letter to Mannes three days after the February 16 concert he noted:

John D. Rockefeller Jr., Arnold Genthe, ca. 1925. The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1975 (1975.510.5)

We were all of us pleased beyond expression with what we saw and heard. The music was delightful and was heard to the best advantage. The character of the audience was most interesting and their appreciation of the concert and of the surroundings was marked. The informal, friendly spirit which prevailed, hundreds of people sitting on the floor, many of them knitting, all quiet and properly respectful, people from the various social strata mingling together in a friendly, natural way, made the occasion a unique and significant one. I think you have rendered a great service to the city in having gotten the Museum Trustees to try out this experiment, and earnestly hope these concerts may become a permanent institution of the city.[4]

After the first successful experiment, concerts became regularly scheduled programs at the Museum. A series of four concerts was offered each January and a second series of four offered each March. All concerts took place Saturday evenings from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m., with one brief intermission. The events were advertised in newspapers and, sometimes, subway stations.

Concert Advertisements. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

Advertisement for a free concert. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

Each year Mannes assembled a group of fifty to sixty-five musicians and held the performances on the north balcony of the Great Hall. No soloists were accepted, and only orchestral music was included in the repertoire. The ensemble occasionally held rehearsals in the Museum, much to the surprise and delight of some visitors. One such visitor sent the following note to David Mannes:

It is often that the unexpected things in life are the most pleasant experiences. You and your orchestra were one of these. I walked into the Museum this morning with an eager haste to view the paintings, I was PETRIFIED in my path by the delirious beauty of the music, which was perhaps to you just another tedious rehearsal. The completeness of perfect music and perfect Art was too much of a luxury, and held me in an ecstatic state. It seemed that the music was the lover wooing his lady love, Art. They both met in a sublime embrace. [5]

The concerts became hugely successful, and although there was a limited number of seats(fifteen hundred), visitors stood, brought their own stools, or sat on the floor or on the sides of the main staircase. The musicians were positioned so that they were not visible, which kept the emphasis on the music and allowed the audience to concentrate on the surrounding works of art. After each concert, the Museum remained open for forty-five minutes to encourage the audience to visit the galleries with illuminated eyes. The 1927 novel The Bright Threshold, includes a description of one of the Museum's concerts:

When the symphony began, faces lifted—clay flowering under a bright shaft of sound. The music seemed to draw its loveliness from all form and color gathered here; harmony flowed from curves of Grecian marble; twisted melodies like arabesques in chroprase and jade; pauses with the stern calmness of a bronze Buddha squatting on his pedestal; wood wind phrases breathing the color from a case of ancient Chinese pottery—tones glazed with violet, apple-green, and plumb.[6]

Concert audience on the great staircase, New York Times, January 28, 1923. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

Audience listening to concert through amplifiers, New York World Telegram, February 13, 1937. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

Each year the concerts drew more and more people, sometimes as many as seventeen thousand. By the early 1930s, in order to alleviate the congestion in the front halls, amplifiers were installed in galleries adjacent to the Great Hall, and in 1938 performances began to be broadcast from loudspeakers throughout the entire building.

With each successive year the concert program earned new adherents inside and outside the Museum. In 1932, Herbert Winlock, the Egyptologist and newly appointed director of the Museum, wrote to John D. Rockefeller Jr. praising the concert program:

Personally I feel extremely interested in them. I had never heard one of these Museum concerts until this year as I was always in Egypt when they were held. I must admit that reading about them in Egypt, I did not see exactly how they fitted in to the Museum scheme of things, but now that I have seen how these forty thousand people have stood by the hour in rapt attention I have become a most enthusiastic devotee of the idea.[7]



A listener enjoying the sound of music at the Museum, Life, January 11, 1937, pg. 64. Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives

David Mannes's early programs included short, "light" works, but he gradually began to feature one or two movements of a longer piece and, eventually, a full symphony as the first half of a concert. After two Stradivarius violins were bequeathed to the Museum by Annie Bolton Matthews Bryant in 1933, they were incorporated into the performance, with David Mannes playing one and another member of the orchestra the other.

Toward the end of the 1930s, with the increased popularity of radio broadcasts, declining attendance led to a curtailment of the concert program, but demand from visitors quickly brought back a regular schedule. In a letter sent to the Museum, eight visitors protested:

Many walked to the Museum because they did not have carfare to ride and they came early in the afternoon in order to be sure of a seat for the eight o'clock concert. . . . It is not likely that these people will have radios in their homes, nor can they hear comparable music and musicians anywhere in the city without paying fot [sic] it. And those who have radios—with all the music wonders it brings—find that there is an enjoyment in attendance which radio cannot give.[8]

The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium

After thirty years, David Mannes conducted his last concert in April of 1947. During his tenure as conductor, more than one and a half million people attended concerts at the Met. In 1954 the Museum opened The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, creating a permanent venue for musical performances. Today, on Friday and Saturday evenings, classical music floats through the Great Hall as a small group of unseen musicians perform from the Great Hall Balcony Bar.

[1] Louise R. Elder, "Music and Painting" in The Public Ledger, April 5, 1918.

[2] "Mannes Concert Today to Close 30-Year Series" in New York Herald Tribune, April 13, 1947.

[3] David Mannes, "The Museum Concerts – Twenty Years of Conducting" page 1, manuscript in the Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.

[4] Letter from February 19, 1918 John D. Rockefeller Jr. to David Mannes, Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.

[5] Letter from Gladys Collins to David Mannes, January 19, 1935, Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.

[6] Nathalie Sedgwick Colby "Right of Sanctuary" review of The Bright Threshold by Janet Ramsay in The Saturday Review, September 10, 1927, 102.

[7] February 2, 1932 H. E. Winlock to John D. Rockefeller Jr., Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.

[8] Protest letter, January 3, 1938, Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives.

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